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Benefit Gala Highlights Arena Stage Community Outreach

  • Amra Alirejsovic

Students from the Washington, DC, area act in a production at the Arena Stage, one of the center's many community-outreach programs that expose young people to the arts

Students from the Washington, DC, area act in a production at the Arena Stage, one of the center's many community-outreach programs that expose young people to the arts

Washington, D.C.'s Arena Stage is a leading center for the production, development and study of American theater. Among its activities is a series of outreach programs aimed at exposing young people to theater - even if they don't have access to arts education in their schools and communities.

To help fund these programs, Arena Stage recently held its 18th annual benefit gala at Washington's historic Lincoln Theater, presenting an evening that brought together art and politics. It was a night of song, dance and drama.

Reaching a wide and diverse audience

Arena Stage said its community outreach programs reach more than 20,000 young people in the Washington area each year, and involve them in one of the best arts-integration programs in the United States. In just one season, Arena Stage programs teach more than 1,350 drama workshops for students and teachers, and prepare more than 900 students to perform on Arena's stages. Since its founding in 1950, Arena Stage has reached a diverse audience of more than 200,000 people annually.

Artistic Director Anita Maynard-Losh says its community-engagement efforts include numerous programs to let local schoolchildren see what theater is all about. "We also have after school programs, we have residencies in the schools. We have programs that we do with community organizations, like pediatric HIV/AIDS care, the hospice program. We work with child and family services trying to use the tools of theater to enrich the lives of students who do not have those opportunities."

Other Arena Stage initiatives include a Summer Camp literacy program called "Moving Stories," and an after-school program called "Voices of Now." "Voices of Now" started in Southwest Washington and now is expanding to much of the rest of the city.

Changing a child's life

Children participating in those programs say they can be a life-changing experience. "Voices of Now has helped me make more friends and have more fun," said one girl in the program. "I hope it gets me out of my shy spot."

A boy in the same group said, "At the beginning I did not know what to do, I did not know the people, I was kind of shy. But 'Voices of Now' really helped me become a better man in life, because I know how to meet people now. 'Voices of Now' really does help you not only in school, but also in life."

Among the participants in the benefit gala was U.S. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., who showed off his dancing talents. Congressman Jackson said engagement with the arts is important to any community.

"Through artistic expression people get to know each other, they move beyond race, sex, and class," said Jackson. "On stage, there are no class distinctions, only the talent. I have always maintained that through music and freedom of expression - in ways that oftentimes bitter partisan struggles and politics do not get through - music does."

High-profile advocates

Another strong advocate for the arts is Congressman Norman Dicks, who was awarded the "American Voice" award for his contribution to the national arts community. Pointing out that Congress recently set aside $50 million for non-profit and arts organizations, he said funding the arts can help create jobs, along with its other benefits to the community.

"Being involved and exposed to arts can help the human spirit," said Dicks. "It can not only help heal people, but it can also help people reach their greatest potential."

Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington's non-voting delegate to Congress, said the arts can overcome political and social divisions when politics can not. "Politicians are always trying to connect with people and imitate art, which does so naturally. We have to try very hard to do it."

Artistic Director Anita Maynard-Losh says being engaged in the arts helps children develop skills on many different levels. "There have been a lot of studies about the arts, education programs and how they improve students' lives anywhere from test scores to critical thinking. But I think one of the most important things is the joy they bring into students lives, because that joy is something that they carry with them and strengthens them throughout their entire lives."